One of New York's largest LGBTQ clubs is accused of fostering a toxic environment
Before it opened, The Q held a lot of promise. It was meant to be a game changer for New York City's nightlife. The goal was for the club to be as inclusive and welcoming as possible to the entire LGBTQ community.
"That's why we called it 'The Q.' As if the most all-inclusive and exhaustive letter had been plucked from the acronym LGBTQ and hung on the marquee," Frankie Sharp, a longtime nightlife producer and the now-former creative director for the club, told NPR over email.
The celebrity-backed, multilevel Hell's Kitchen nightclub opened a little over a year ago, rising from the ruins of bars, restaurants and clubs shuttered in New York City due to COVID-19.
With rave reviews, it quickly became one of the city's largest LGBTQ nightclubs.
Before opening, the club advertised its ties to big-name actors like Billy Porter and Zachary Quinto, naming the two as investors. (A representative for Porter said the actor declined to comment for this story. Quinto's team did not respond to a request for comment from NPR.)
"I wanted to create a safe space not in the sometimes trite sense we see the term used, but a true and sacred space for all of our queer family to feel safe enough for freedom, fun, and cathartic self-expression," Sharp said. "I wanted to build an antidote for the Trump era. I wanted to build all of us a home."
Instead, what ended up being built was far more controversial.
This summer, Sharp sued Bob Fluet and Allan Pikus, the two partners he worked closely with for more than two years to open the club. Fluet is the owner and architect of the successful Boxers venues in the city, and Pikus describes himself as an "event producer" on his LinkedIn page.
In his lawsuit filed in New York's Supreme Court in June, and first reported by Instinct magazine, Sharp alleges a litany of problems at The Q. Sharp claims he was wrongfully terminated only after bringing several employee complaints and his personal concerns, both about Pikus in particular, to Fluet.
Explicit details in the lawsuit contain allegations that Pikus created a toxic environment from the moment the club opened and freely used racist, transphobic and generally discriminatory language. Pikus is also alleged to have engaged in public sex in the club around employees and to have used his power to take advantage of young gay men who came to The Q. These allegations are supported by additional communications between Sharp and current and former employees as well as patrons of the club.
An attorney for Pikus said Pikus had no comment.
In comments emailed to NPR, Fluet said he was not around to manage The Q as closely as he wanted to, as he was tied up with opening another two clubs, Hush and Boxers HK.
"I trusted my producers and staff, but it turns out I spread myself a bit too thin and relied on our producers too much," Fluet said. "I've always tried to empower my staff to take the lead to create great programming and amazing venues by trying to keep a low key."
But several individuals argue that Fluet was not unaware of these issues. On the contrary, Sharp and other employees (both current and former) said they complained — often — about Pikus. In his lawsuit, Sharp even says he showed Fluet video proof of some actions by Pikus.
Sharp alleges that it's because he kept complaining about Pikus' actions that he was eventually pushed out of The Q and wrongfully terminated.
The trickle-down effect of issues at The Q
In the immediate fallout of allegations brought against Pikus, former patrons have shared their own experiences on social media. Many with ties to The Q say the issues at this one place have a trickle-down effect to the wider LGBTQ community.
A lot of performers for The Q are people of color and transgender, according to a current club employee who spoke to NPR under the condition of anonymity out of concern for their job. After the news broke of this lawsuit, these performers were forced to choose between staying with a club they morally and ethically disagreed with or losing their income.
"Nightlife is the only way that [some] people are able to find safety and security and their identity and take ownership in their art — and also make an income out of it. And when these situations happen, it forces them to really struggle and go elsewhere. And those are the people who are usually most affected by these issues," this employee said.
Eric Gonzaba, a LGBTQ culture historian, said there may be some fear or trepidation within the community about shedding light on these allegations. He noted there are already so few spaces like The Q and other bars and clubs that cater to the LGBTQ community. But he noted that the situation at The Q has far bigger implications.
"A lot of people think: 'Oh, it's a nightlife thing. People feel ostracized at bars. Who cares?' I think for us it's really important to think about why these issues matter to so many people," he said.
"If you have major divisions like race and homophobia and transphobia, you're not going to be able to unite when it comes time to tackle major problems within that community," Gonzaba said. "And then the community suffers because they're not able to come together quickly enough."
A glimpse of life as an employee of The Q
The lawsuit also alleges that Pikus engaged in hateful, discriminatory rhetoric and discouraged the hiring of staff of color or trans individuals.
These allegations are supported by current and former employees.
Forrest Wu, The Q's first general manager, said he was first interested in working at the club because of its mission to create a queer community space that was intersectional.
"I really liked and gravitated towards the idea of creating space, where space might not have existed before for certain communities," Wu told NPR over the phone. "It just so quickly became clear to me that was more of a marketing tactic."
As general manager, Wu was responsible for hiring bar staff. He says his goal was to hire a diverse group of employees that represented a wide selection of members of the LGBTQ community.
But Wu said he was scolded for this effort.
"I was very frequently reprimanded for it and encouraged to put white male bartenders" in prominent spots in the club, he said. "The reverse was also true — I got pushback from placing femme and [bartenders of color] at locations the owners deemed too prominent, under the pretense that 'that wasn't what guests wanted to see.'"
The current Q employee said that in their role working the door for one of the club's parties, they were told to turn away women.
Pierce Hughes, who worked the door for the club from June 2021 until April of this year, said she and several other employees were allegedly often told: Don't let in women.
"It was a pretty constant thing," she told NPR over the phone. "Even on nights when the parties were free, [Pikus] would have me tell women, 'Oh, it's a private event and you can't come in.'"
In reality, Hughes said executing this alleged rule was entirely impractical.
Those policies "never really got enforced by most people at the door, but it definitely made working way more stressful and way more difficult when he was there," Hughes said of Pikus' presence.
Hughes said she also felt that Pikus avoided her as much as possible because she is a woman. She worked at the club until April. Up until then, she says, she was allegedly given fewer and fewer shifts and eventually written off the schedule altogether. At that point, Pikus was still working at the club.
Sharp, the former creative director, said he regularly heard employees' complaints of what was happening at The Q. He said he heard from more than 20 employees during his time there.
"From bar staff members, promoters, dancers to DJs. It was daily. We had an almost comical turnover in managers over the first year of operation," Sharp said. "We all learned to deal with it because Bob [Fluet] was the controlling partner and he wouldn't do anything about it. The loudest complaints always came directly from me. Sadly, Bob consistently gaslit, diminished, and ignored me and the staff."
Wu also said he and other employees frequently dealt with unbridled bigotry and racist language that spewed from Pikus' mouth.
"Like truly shocking rhetoric that was shared very freely and openly in a very uncoded way in conversations among senior leadership," Wu said.
Sharp's lawsuit includes explicit details of comments allegedly made by Pikus, including repeatedly telling Sharp, "Make sure your Latin nights are the good kind of Latins. Not Blatinos."
Pikus allegedly said that "He wanted special measures taken against customers that: 'looked like they were from the Bronx,'" the lawsuit states.
According to the lawsuit, he also allegedly told a candidate for bar manager, "I don't need to break my back to hire people just because they're black or trans."
Wu says he heard language just like this while working with Pikus. Wu, who worked at the club from March 2021 to September 2021, said he didn't retain any email proof or communications with Pikus or Fluet.
He said it became frustrating that most of the egregious conversations happened face-to-face — he feels almost intentionally so. Holding the leaders accountable became that much more difficult to trace, Wu said.
Hughes said there was a serious lack of staff diversity at The Q because of Pikus' feelings. She said the entire time she worked there, there was only one Black bartender ever and there was also never a Black manager.
She felt these practices flew in the face of the alleged inclusive mission of the club, at a great loss to The Q and the LGBTQ community.
"I think if you have a good balance of people working in a space like that, guests who relate to them are going to feel more comfortable coming in," she said.
Wu was later fired after regularly coming into contention with management over noninclusive policies, he said.
Wu says there is shared blame among Pikus, Fluet and to a degree Sharp as well.
Fluet, he asserted, is just as guilty as Pikus for supporting an environment like this.
"Because he really knew how to keep his hands clean, while also encouraging a culture of bigotry and racism," he said.
Wu also thinks Sharp may not have been in the best place to handle these issues.
"Frankie entered into the agreement of ownership with the best of intentions but wasn't always well equipped to mitigate in instances where the club's stated vision wasn't being executed in good faith," he said.
An uncomfortable power dynamic
Some of the most unsettling allegations in the lawsuit against Pikus and The Q are that the now-former owner essentially used the club to take advantage of younger men who arrived at The Q.
Sharp's lawsuit alleges that other clubs would call complaining that customers under 21 were trying to buy drinks at their establishments by using wristbands from The Q. The club "was allegedly developing a reputation as the place to go for underage drinking," the suit claims.
According to Wu, Pikus would allegedly have a "squad of much younger guys who he would ply with drinks." He also says he heard that Pikus was letting people into the club who were under the drinking age.
The lawsuit also states that Pikus ordered security to stop checking IDs of customers whom he personally was allowing in and told security to stop confiscating illegal drugs from customers "specifically GHB, a well-known and dangerous club drug that can also be considered a 'date-rape drug,'" the lawsuit alleges.
"All of that tracks in my experience of what I would expect. I can tell you it wouldn't surprise me in the slightest," Wu said.
The lawsuit also alleges that Pikus engaged in sexual activity at work. The lawsuit reads, "However, it was the numerous staff complaints that Pikus was routinely engaging in workplace sex with customers in their immediate workspace while they were trying to do their jobs that forced Sharp to take action."
The attorney for Pikus declined to comment on questions regarding these allegations.
"I had heard of Alan engaging in sexual activity in the employee restroom often, although he was also commonly seen engaging in sex acts with (often very young-looking) customers in the public areas of the club," Sharp said. "I found this pattern of behavior extremely disturbing. I brought those concerns to Bob, who was dismissive and belittled me for it."
Former and current employees also shared to NPR that they were often witness to Pikus making sexual comments to staff and patrons. They also detailed times when they witnessed Pikus engaging in sexual acts with customers in the middle of the club. They also said they knew Pikus was having sex inside the club.
Allegations of sexual misconduct or inappropriate touching go beyond Pikus specifically.
Gabby Toro, a former patron of The Q, said she arrived at the club in May looking forward to having a good time with friends. It was one of her first nights in the city.
After entering the club, Toro said a bouncer caressed her stomach and grabbed her waist in an entirely inappropriate way that left her feeling shaken. After a while, she and a friend sought out someone to report the incident to, and she was directed to Pikus. Toro said Pikus didn't seem to take the accusation seriously and ultimately dismissed all responsibility.
Toro said she even messaged Pikus on Instagram at around 1 a.m. that same night to tell him she found the bouncer outside the club. These messages were reviewed by NPR. Nothing was done and Pikus didn't respond.
Toro said this kind of experience weighs heavily on her as a femme-presenting Latina and member of the queer community. Toro said this kind of thing happens too often and it affects how she navigates the world.
She told NPR over the phone that wearing a crop top is not an invitation to be touched without consent.
"With a bouncer, that can be a little more scary because this is someone who is there who's supposed to be protective of you and who's supposed to be protecting the space. And to see that happening can sometimes be a little traumatic," she said.
Normally she views LGBTQ clubs as a safe space for her to express herself comfortably.
She notes that the bouncer in this incident and The Q more generally are "not representative of everyone and every space."
The Q attempts to move on
Sharp said after hearing from staff about sexual allegations against Pikus, he went straight to Fluet, even showing him evidence in the form of surveillance tape.
NPR reviewed a copy of one of the club's surveillance tapes.
The clip, at 2 minutes and 32 seconds long, appears to show Pikus engaging in a sexual act with a customer in the middle of one of the club's rooms. The room was packed with patrons; standing just a few feet away were the room's DJ and a person working the door, and not far from them was the bartender.
"As it turned out, it was precisely when I showed Bob hard evidence corroborating the staff complaints about Alan that Bob forced me out of the partnership in order to continue his partnership with Alan unmolested," Sharp said. "One of the last things Bob told me was 'You brought this on us.'"
In response to questions regarding Sharp's allegations, Fluet declined to get into specifics, citing the active lawsuit.
"We are in an active legal case now so I can't comment on any of the details of Mr. Sharp's allegations," Fluet said in an emailed response. "To be on the safe side, I am proceeding ahead as if the allegations about what was happening at the Q are not without merit and I have worked with my staff to chart a path forward to ensure something like what was described in the lawsuit does not happen at the Q."
Following the lawsuit and more allegations made online, The Q has issued statements saying Pikus is no longer involved in the club. On July 5, the club issued a statement on Instagram that said, "While we vehemently deny the hurtful allegations that have recently surfaced, we are committed to end the very division within our community that Q's programming and mission were designed to combat."
The club has also hired a new executive producer, Luis Fernando, in an effort to address the many issues that have come to light, according to the club's statements on Instagram. Fluet told NPR that he has no professional relationship with Pikus any longer.
Current and former employees of The Q said the problems at the club stemmed solely from the top. They say they want to ensure that people know it's not the staff or even the big-name investors' fault that these things happened.
"My greatest concern is the financial effects of the lawsuit and the reputation of the club — not on its owners, because they deserve to feel the weight of their guilt, but on the people who work there," Wu said. "I think the greatest effects will be felt by the people who earn their money there earnestly. They don't deserve to bear the effects of the owners' failings."
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